In 2001, the technology magazine Wired coined the phrase "geek syndrome" to describe the threefold increase in autism diagnoses in California's Silicon Valley over the space of a decade.
The rumour that Bill Gates himself, founder of Microsoft and figurehead of the world IT industry, displays the traits of Asperger's syndrome, the high-functioning form of autism, spread like wildfire, across – appropriately – the internet.
More than a decade later Cambridge University's Autism Research Centre is now running a study investigating the previously established link between parents working in hi-tech, scientific and mathematical industries and an increased incidence of children on the autism spectrum. The National Autistic Society reports in its latest member's magazine that the number of software packages and apps designed specifically for people with autism is rocketing. IT companies in the UK and beyond are actively recruiting an autistic workforce for its highly technical and concentration skills.
The relationship between computers and autism is undisputed – and double-edged. Many autism experts agree with Temple Grandin, an author and professor at Colorado State University, herself autistic, who believes that without "the gifts of autism" there would probably be no Nasa or IT industry. Yet the high-profile cases of Gary McKinnon and Ryan Cleary, both of whom have Asperger's syndrome, are just two examples of how that relationship can go wrong.
Last November a conference organised by Research Autism considered this apparent contradiction, asking are computers a blessing or a curse for people with autism? Richard Mills, director of research at the charity and chair of the conference, believes the answer is complicated: "The computer age totally changes the world of autism. Things are instant, and they are unregulated. We see tremendous advantages to this if it is properly managed – and huge pitfalls if it isn't."
The risks are not just for the small proportion who hit the headlines though. "We have so many parents concerned about their children's computer use, and about the explosion of packages designed to help people with autism to communicate, which have not been properly evaluated. We must proceed with rather more caution and try to think through problems before they actually happen."
The potential of computers to help a group that struggles to communicate and form relationships in real life is obvious. Professor Simon Baron Cohen, Director of the Autism Research Centre believes they outweigh the possible risks: "We can use computers to teach emotion recognition and to simplify communication by stripping out facial and vocal emotional expressions and slowing it down using email instead of face-to-face real-time modes."
Research at Nottingham University and Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh has found that people with autism value the increased control over their interactions that is afforded by the filter of a computer screen. They can observe interactions, choose when to be sociable and make contact with other people who have autism.
Presenting information visually in the precise and predictable computer format suits the autistic mind, says Baron Cohen, and can provide "a tool or platform for developing further skills".
He also identifies the role of computers in making geeks fashionable: "The new technology is chic, so people who are talented at using technology acquire a certain kudos, thereby further reducing any stigma that is often associated with disability."
One risk though is that the computer can itself become an obsession which, in extreme cases, leads the user into serious problems. The reports of Essex teenager Ryan Cleary, charged with a cyber-attack on the Serious Organised Crime Agency, leaving his computer only to use the bathroom, may be extreme but they are far from unique, says Mills: "We do need to think about the tendency in autism to become fixated on narrow activities. They may have the skills to use computers but not to know when to stop."
In March it will be 10 years since Gary McKinnon's arrest for allegedly hacking into a number of US military computers. High court judges last month set a July deadline for the home secretary to decide whether McKinnon will be extradited to face trial and a possible 60-year sentence. His mother, Janis Sharpe, is well aware of the dichotomy of computer use and autism. "When Gary was nine, we bought a primitive Atari," she says. "He would beg me not to send him out to play so he could use it. We wanted him to mix more but we didn't want to deny him the information, pleasure and security computers gave him. They were an outlet for him to be himself, and that boosted his self-esteem."
She recalls accompanying her by-then-adult son to a Christmas party at the family home of a girlfriend. "Gary got his computer out. I told him he couldn't use it at a party but he couldn't understand."
The relationship foundered, and McKinnon retreated further into his virtual world. "People with autism need space, and computers can offer that," says Sharpe. "But we have to make sure they don't take over and make other relationships, already difficult for people with autism, even harder."
She advises parents to keep computers in communal spaces, limit their use and to help children learn to question what they read, guidelines which Mills supports. "This virtual world has to help people access the real world, not isolate them further. They must control it, not be controlled by it," he says. "We have to reinforce the positives."